The Seed is Planted: The 1985 Pittsburgh Pirates
Children are a finicky lot of characters to say the least. Their favorite foods change week to week, day to day and most times minute to minute, their favorite televisions ebb and flow along with the latest trends and they thrive off of instant gratification, as well as information at their fingertips. As a child I was not much different, except for the information at my fingertips; it was the mid-80’s after all. I ate pretty much nothing, but peanut butter sandwiches and LIFE cereal, my obsessions went back and forth between Transformers, G.I. Joe and Thundercats and all I wanted was Pepsi from a glass bottle or a Klondike bar as a reward for not fighting with my older sister that day or behaving at the grocery store.
As it is with most almost 6 year olds I wasn’t a very good sport, as in I didn’t want to lose any game that I played; which meant a lot less rewards for not fighting with my sister. I also wanted whatever team I was cheering for to win as well. A few months before the 1985 Major League Baseball season, my childhood heart took a pretty big hit when hometown hero, Dan Marino, was unable to bring the Lombardi Trophy back to Pittsburgh; in the figurative sense of course. I surely didn’t want something like this to happen again when starting to cheer for a baseball team. How would I make such a tough decision? What baseball team would I put my heart behind?
Other kids my age might have had a simpler way of deciding. Maybe they would start to get behind the team represented on their T-Ball, Minor or Little League uniform. This was impossible for me as my T-Ball League chose to dawn the names of National Football League teams on their uniforms. My sister and I played for the Raiders, so that obviously wasn’t going to help me at all. In a previous article I wrote about my Grandma Caramellino’s love of the Pittsburgh Pirates and my Pap Caramellino’s love of baseball. Why not give the hometown team an opportunity; especially since there was still some luster left from the 1979 We Are Family World Series Champion Pirates. I would soon feel a 6 year old sense of regret and defeat, but not before the 1985 Pittsburgh Pirates had their hooks firmly entrenched in my young heart.
My Dad’s name is William, but everyone has always called him Bill. That year the Pirates had two Bills on their roster; the aging veteran, superstar Bill Madlock, and a journeyman utility player named Bill Almon. Did I mention that a child’s mind is also illogical and it makes connections using the silliest or simplistic reasons? Well it is and it does. These automatically became my two favorite players. Kent Tekulve was quickly added as a third due to the fact that he wore glasses that looked like my Dad’s and I thought the Submarine Pitch looked super cool. I even tried to start throwing like him. A fourth member joined the crew after I saw the name R.J. Reynolds on a pack of my Grandma Toth’s Winston cigarettes. I thought he and the Pirates part time Left Fielder were one in the same for longer than I care to admit.
As the 1985 season started I had such hope for my “new” favorite baseball team. I hadn’t looked at their record from the previous year; it was 75-87 by the way. It really wouldn’t have done me much good to look at because I am not sure if I would have known what it meant anyway. That hope was quickly squashed as the Chuck Tanner led Pittsburgh Pirates dropped the first two games of the year to the Cubs and seven of their first ten games. The Pirates did not have a winning record at any point during the entire season and finished the year 43.5 games behind the first place St. Louis Cardinals, with a record of 57-104. To tell you truth I didn’t care. Madlock hit 10 Home Runs, Almon hit 6, Reynolds batter .308 in a very small sample size and I got an autographed Kent Tekulve card. Also a player named Bob Walk started 9 games that year and had a mustache like my Dad’s. I was very impressionable and easily excited. What can I say; I was 6 by the end of the season.
This team, no matter how bad, is stuck in my psyche forever. It was the first team I invested myself in, that I cheered for and that I have regular memories about listening to, watching on TV and attending my first game to see at Three Rivers Stadium to see play. This terrible team, record wise, holds a special place in my heart and they always will.
Watching It Grow: The 1997 Pittsburgh Pirates
“The Freak Show” as they affectionately came to be known thanks to Pirates long time announcer, Greg Brown, have been the inspiration for a few segments on AT&T Sports Net (as well as the past incarnations of the same network), promotions at PNC Park and multiple articles over the past 20 plus years. Our own Gary Morgan even wrote about them at the previous publication we “worked” at together. They hold a very special place in Pittsburgh Pirates folklore, as well as in the hearts of many Pirates Fans that had the opportunity to see them play first hand. They were a ragtag bunch of baseball players with no expectations placed on them, mostly due to $9 million dollar payroll that was invested in their creation. The 1997 Pittsburgh Pirates hold a special place in my fandom not only for what went only inside the friendly confines of Three Rivers Stadium, but also for what was going on in the life of a young man from Apollo, Pennsylvania.
As the 1997 season started I was finishing up my senior year at Apollo-Ridge High School, with plans to been college at Mercyhurst in the fall. I had a part time job at McDonald’s, spent most of my time at one of the local restaurants (Patrick’s Pub or the Mosey Inn) with my friends, midnight bowling at Lee’s Lanes on a Saturday Night or at the Country Club on Sunday’s. During the previous summer mine and my friend’s parents had also started to let us venture the hour long drive to Three River’s Stadium to let us what Our Buccos play, mostly because they pretty much knew when they could expect us to get home; even though we often tried to push the limits by stopping at Smartie Arties in Holiday Park for some wings on the way back from the game. This summer would be no different, except for the fact that we may have attempted to force our parents expectations even further beyond their boundaries due to a sense freedom on the horizon as we all looked forward to the future.
Along with the new sense of freedom we had instilled in ourselves, the Pirates were also going through some changes of their own. Gone was the Pirates Manager of 10 years, Jim Leyland. In his place stood a familiar face in the form of Pirates former 3rd Base Coach Gene Lamont, who himself had returned to the team from a stint as the Chicago White Sox Manager during the previous year. Kevin McClatchy started to become a more familiar name to a Pirates Fans, after having purchased the team during the previous off-season in February of 1996. After his first full season as owner of the team, he took it upon himself to slash the team’s payroll from an already near league low of $21 Million in 1996 to the ridiculously low, previously mentioned, $9 Million payroll in 1997.
Some familiar faces remained, like Outfielder Al Martin and Pitchers Esteban Loaiza and Jon Lieber remainder and one returned; 1st Baseman Kevin Young after a year with the Kansas City Royals. The rest of the team was made up of cheap veterans and many young faces; including a 23 year old Jason Kendall and a September call-up 3 of the previous 4 years, Tony Womack. No one could have predicted what the season would hold for this team, not even the players in the Pirates clubhouse. I, myself, was just happy to have the freedom to go to see a ballgame as an “adult” and was so wrapped in the social calendar of a recent high school graduate that it was probably about a month or so into the season before I even realized what was going on.
The first game I attended that year was a 10 inning thriller against the Marlins on Sunday in May. Midre Cummings brought the raucous crowd to their feet with a two run home run in the bottom of the 9th to take the game to extra innings, only to have our hopes dashed in the top of the tenth as the Marlins scored two runs. You know who scored the go ahead run? Marlins third baseman, Bobby Bonilla. It would be almost two full months before would attend another game because of work and graduation parties, but I still kept up with the team through radio broadcasts, my subscription to the Sporting News and games whenever they were broadcast.
My next game was a pretty infamous one; you guessed it, the 10-0 loss to the Houston Astros on Friday July 11th. The next day was one for the history and record books but unfortunately I had to work that night and didn’t even find out what had happened until later on the next day when I went to my Grandparents house and picked up the sports section of the Valley News Dispatch. The Pittsburgh Pirates Pitchers, Francisco Cordova and Ricardo Rincon, had combined for 10 inning no-hitter, the 8th of its kind and tied for the longest combined no-hitter in history. That day I watched the game on television with my Grandparents and the Buccos won again, giving them a 1 game lead in the NL Central over the Astros.
Toward the beginning and especially in the middle of August many of my friends began to head off to college, leaving only a few of us at home, and waiting for it to be our turn. On Wednesday August 20th I went to my last game with one of my high school friends before he left for school that weekend. The Pirates won 7-3 over the Padres and moved back to .500 at 63-63. Honestly I don’t remember much more about the game other than the fact that Jason Schmidt almost went the distance. I was more focused on the “end of an era” and the trip to Smartie Artie’s on the way home.
Over the next two weeks I went to four games by myself, including a rare Monday double header against the Dodgers; the second game ended in a walk off home run by Mark Smith in the bottom of the 9th, right after Joe Randa has tied the game with a two run home run the batter before. I wish I would have made that my last game; it would have been a great way to physically walk away from that season and into life as a college freshman. Unfortunately I went to a disappointing 7-3 loss to the Indians a little over a week later and only three days before I left home.
The day that I arrived on the campus at Mercyhurst College in Erie, PA, the Pirates moved within 2.5 games of the Houston Astros. It was the closest they would get to the NL Central Title for the rest of the season. However, it was a sense of pride amongst all of us from the Pittsburgh area as our team was relevant with so many other baseball fans from different areas. And even though we finished 5 games back and 4 games under .500 some three weeks later, it brought me closer to some of the people I met, gave me a little bit of normalcy during a time of such change and attached me to my “hometown” when I was away from home for the first time in my life. I am eternally grateful to the boys from “The Freak Show”, my 1997 Pittsburgh Pirates.
Fruits of My Passion: The 2005 Pittsburgh Pirates
Think back to a time in your life when you were just young enough to still not have a care in the world, but had enough money burning a hole in your pocket that you could spend it on some unnecessary things. For me the year was 2005 and for my friends and I that gratuitous expense was the package of Pittsburgh Pirates tickets that would allow you to get every bobblehead that season, along with a couple other games. We as a group had been going to games here and there over the past couple of years, sometimes there were more than just the usual 4 and other times we couldn’t all make it. However, it became our nice little getaway for the afternoon and/or evening and we were going to enjoy ourselves. All life-long/diehard Pirates fans, with our Cleveland Indians buddy thrown in from time to time, we weren’t in it just for the give-away or getaway; we were also in it for the pre-game tailgates, as well as some baseball talk along the way.
It began as just a couple hours before the game hanging out and turned into half days at work, getting into the lot as soon as possible and having as much time to drink and eat as we wanted to type of affairs. Of course there was always baseball at the end of these parties and that was definitely not lost on us as we walked into PNC Park ready to cheer on our Buccos. The 2005 Pittsburgh Pirates were like many of their recent predecessors and the teams that would follow in that they were often a very eclectic mix; mostly made up of very young/unproven players, veteran castoffs and a couple of potential budding superstars. The previous year the Pirates finished with a record of 72-89, better than only the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central, so expectations were not very high. However a young man acquired in the trade of Brian Giles to the San Diego Padres a couple of years earlier had burst into the scene with 26 Home Runs. That young man was the Canadian Outfielder and 2004 Rookie of the Year winner, Jason Bay. Add in future batting champ Freddy Sanchez, 2004 All-Star Jack Wilson and top prospect, Zack Duke on the horizon, we at least had something to root for coming into 2005.
The season did not get off to a good start as the Pirates were swept in a short two game opening series by the Brewers and then lost a quick west coast heartbreaker to the Padres in 12 innings. It wasn’t until April 15th that my friends and I attended our first game of the year on Jason Bay Bobblehead Night. It had been a warm day and we were all young and tough guys, so we all left our sweatshirts in the car. The day soon turned to night and we were all ordering coffees and hot chocolates to stay warm. One of friend even signed up for a credit card to get the free Pirates blanket. On the field an unlikely hero, Bobby Hill, who was having a hot start to the season, doubled in two to give the Pirates the lead for good over the Cubbies late in the game. I heard this play over the radio of my car as I drove home because it was way too cold to stay for the entire game.
It would be over a little of a month before I would attend another Pirates with my friends, this time on Oliver Perez Bobblehead Night. Yes the same Oliver Perez that took the mound for the New York Mets in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS versus the St. Louis Cardinals. Since it was a Saturday Night game, that left plenty of time for tailgating, mainly drinking, which is probably why I don’t remember as much from this 8 to 3 victory over the Colorado Rockies. As I try to recall that night the main events that stick out in my mind were that Perez actually pitched pretty well in the game, earning a win on his night and that Jason Bay went 0-4, striking out twice. This was extremely disappointing as he had been on a tear leading up to this game and went on another one immediately after, so we basically got to see one of his only bad games during that time.
On June 8th of that season the Pirates did something a little different and had their first ever “dual” bobbleheads, which ended up becoming one of my favorite Pirates Collectibles for a very long time; the Steve Blass/Manny Sanguillen Bobblehead may be the best idea the marketing department has ever come up with, prior to the Steve Blass Bobblehead this past season. This particular game was on a Wednesday, but I had the next two days off so it was like a Friday for me. Only one of my friends joined me that day for the “normal” pregame. By the time the other two guys arrived we were kind of out of control. This was fairly routine for us at the time, so it was extremely lucky that we always stopped drinking once we got into the game; mostly because we didn’t want to pay the ballpark prices. This day resulted in another win for the Pirates, 6-1 over the Baltimore Orioles and almost ended with a Rob Mackowiak cycle.
The next two games that I went to kind of run together in my mind. This should not and does not make any sense as I went to the one on Tuesday June 21st with my Mom, my Dad and my Grandma for my Birthday and the other was a game with my friends on Saturday July 9th. Also there was a giveaway on the July 9th, a Pittsburgh Crawford’s hat, which I originally remember as a Homestead Grays hat. The Homestead Gray’s hat is the one that my Dad and my one buddy both wore for what seemed like the next 10 years. This is probably why I remember that one more clearly, even though neither one of these are the best versions of either ball cap and could possibly be why these games run together. Nothing about these games was the same, other than the score. The Pirates beat the Nationals 11-4 on the 22nd and won a game over the Mets on the 9th by the same score.
I only remember going to one more game that year, but based on my ticket stubs (I have kept all of them since at least 1997) I went to two more games. In between July 9th and Tuesday August 23rd I went to see the Pirates win two games on Sunday July 24th (3-0 versus the Rockies) and Saturday August 6th (9-4 versus the LA Dodgers). On the 23rd of August the Pirates shut out the Cardinals 10-0 as Nate McLouth homered and Zack Duke only went 2 innings, which was the main reason I went to the game. At that point in his rookie year Duke was 6-0 and as always I have been a big fan of prospects, so this was a little disappointing, but it was nice to see another Pirates win.
As the season came to an end Lloyd McClendon lost Managerial Position, the team ended the year 67-95 good for last in the NL Central and my friends and I already made plans to sign up for the same package the following year. Some positives came out of this season, including 32 Home Runs for Jason Bay, an 8-2 record with a 1.82 ERA for Zack Duke and a break out season for Freddy Sanchez. Add in a 9-0 record for me in the games I attended that year; it was a running joke that I should have gone to all the home games that season and it was a great summer for Pirates baseball.
Passing It On: The 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates
If I randomly polled Pittsburgh Pirates fans in my general age group as to the pinnacle of their fandom, the vast majority of them would more than likely recall the magical night of the Pirates Wild Card/“Blackout” Game versus the Reds on October 1, 2013. Believe me that is definitely up there and I can’t really disagree with anyone that would give this as their because fandom is a very personal journey, but for me there were a few moments during the previous year that hold a more special place in heart and are forever etched in my memory.
During the 2011 season the Pirates gave fans more hope than they had experienced in years. Up until back to back heartbreaking losses in Atlanta in late July, they were in middle of playoff hunt and in a dead heat with the Brewers and the Cardinals for the Division Title. After an epic second half collapse they finished 18 games under .500 and 24 games out of 1st Place. However, they brought life back into the city and had many of us looking forward to what would come next. I for one couldn’t wait and neither could my soon to be 5 year old daughter Grace, who had become the constant by my side as we watched game after game together.
As the 2012 season began the Pirates got off to a slow start, which just extended the disappointment felt by many at the end of the preceding year. As the season progressed they fought and clawed their way to a 25-25 record through the first 50 games. During the weekend prior to this my Mom and Dad gave me an early Birthday/Father’s Day present of 4 tickets to the Pirates game on Sunday June 10th, which would be the first one I would attend that season.
It was an extremely hot afternoon (88 Degrees) when the game began; luckily we had seats in 316 section with the Press Box blocking out the sun the majority of the time. Gracie had the number 22 for McCutchen on the back of her shirt, a last minute purchase at the local Kmart; immediately cementing him as her favorite player for life. Much to her delight, and mine, McCutchen put the Pirates on the board with a double in the bottom of the 1st; bringing in Alex Presley. He then blasted a home run to left field; with Neil Walker standing on 2nd in the bottom of the 3rd. Gracie kept on telling me that she hit a home run because she matched McCutchen. We spent the rest of the game talking about the rules of baseball, why the fielders shifted on certain at bats and why Neil Walker was my favorite player, not Andrew McCutchen. As the game ended the Pirates held on for a 3-2 victory over the Kansas City Royals and moved into a tie for 1st place in the process.
The next game that we would attend that season was a fairly monumental one for my family as four generations, from my 84 year old Grandma Caramellino to my 13 month old son Carter, went to the game together for the first time ever. As the Pirates hosted the Miami Marlins, my family and I packed into PNC Park to see our team win its third game in a row and to 12 games over .500. As the game went on Carter began to get fussy and my Grandma was starting to get tired, so slowly we began to trickle out to our cars. Gracie and I held on to the final out because she wanted to see the celebration fireworks and wanted to make sure the Pirates held on for the win. This time it was my favorite player, Walker that played the role of hero with the go ahead home run in the bottom of the 5th.
As summer went on Pirates fever reached its peak. Walking through the streets in Koppel, PA, I could hear the sounds of the game coming out of radios from people’s porches and through open windows as the volume was turned up a little too loud. Sitting down at the bar inside Buster’s Place or McDowell’s Inn, patrons were actually paying attention as the Pirates played, rather than treating it as background noise. On July 31st we were all locked to the television screen as A.J. Burnett took a no-hitter into the bottom of the 8th against the Cubs, which is the closest I have come to watching a no-no from start to finish in my life, either on tv or in person. Me and my friend who were watching the game together did speak a word from at least the 5th inning on. After the game I called my Grandma Caramellino and the first thing she said to me was how much she couldn’t stand Pedro Alvarez for not being patient at the plate. She was a big fan of Billy Beane as you can imagine.
The rest of the season is somewhat of a blur of win streaks and longer losing streaks (7 games at the beginning of September). That year the Pirates had three players with over 25 home runs (McCutchen 31, Alvarez 30 and Garrett “G.I.” Jones), three pitchers with over 10 Wins (Burnett 16, James McDonald 12 and Kevin Correia 12) and a team ERA of 3.86. Unfortunately they dropped below .500 for the 20th Season in a row after being as many as 16 games over on August 6th, finishing 4 games under and 18 games out of 1st Place. It was disheartening to say the least.
Of the many letdowns that occurred during the 2012 season for the Pittsburgh Pirates, there were also so many bright spots; especially considering my own personal fandom journey as a lifelong supporter of the Pirates, who was now passing along my passion to my daughter, Gracie. Over the previous year and even more so during the 2012 season as she became my side-kick in watching every pitch and discussing the intricacies that exist in each and every game. That summer she fell in love with baseball just as I had when I was right around her age. 2012 was also one of last years I was able to have meaningful conversations with my Grandma Caramellino about the game she had introduced me to and that had been a part of building the unbreakable bond between us.
One Magical Night: The Pirates 2013 Wild Card Game
A lot has been written about this particular game over the past few days; especially after AT&T Sports Net’s airing of the game for all to see on Tuesday Night and the subsequent showing of the game on MLB’s #OpeningDayAtHome Thursday Morning on @MLB Las Mayores and Twitter. Hell, the Pirates even have a link to the full game on YouTube on their Twitter feed if you want to go watch it again; I have! Each time I watch it I am transported back to my apartment in Moon Township. Pacing the living room, drinking way too many IC Lights and having a few nervous smoke breaks on my patio; watching the game through the sliding glass doors, not wanting to miss a minute. I still get goosebumps with every Cueto chant from the “black-out” crowd at PNC Park. Then with a drop of the baseball, the crowd is in hysterics. Russell Martin sends them even further into a state of pure pandemonium as he crushes Cueto’s next pitch into a sea of Left Field Loonies! Ok, I just got chills again. The rest of the game is a mix of joy, disbelief, elation, satisfaction and pride. This was my team! My Pittsburgh Pirates, on the National Stage had sent the rival Reds packing and we were on to St. Louis!
This game is one of my most cherished memories in Pittsburgh Sports Fandom, if not the most. However, as I got to thinking about this one game, this one moment in time, I started remembering the rest of the season; all 162 games that preceded this One Magical Night. It was much different than the offensive exhibition that Russell Martin and company put on that night. It was a season of defense and good pitching, which as we all know Liriano put on full display that night. It was a season of shifting and the Sinker. For the most part it was “small ball” at its finest.
Now granted the Pirates did combine for 161 Home Runs that season. However, this was only one of a couple major batting categories that they were above league average in; 14th to be exact and only 6 Home Runs above the median. The other was OPS+, which is a stretch as a major category; and they finished 11th and a fraction higher (3) ahead of the middle of the pack. In any other category they were ranked near or in the bottom third; including runs (20th/634), batting average (22nd/.245) and on base percentage (19th/.313). They were a league average slugging team with a percentage of .396. The Pirates also struck out more than all but 5 other teams during the 2013 season. And to top it all off one of the heroes of this game Russell Martin had a total of 15 other Home Runs throughout the entire season and batted .226. Martin and many others contributed in other ways during the Pirates 94-68 campaign; especially defensively.
For the year the Pirates ranked 3rd in all of Major League Baseball in Defensive Runs Saved (45), led by Martin with 21 and Starling Marte with 18. Even the oft defensive challenged Pedro Alvarez stayed in the black with a 2 DRS. As a team the Pirates also ranked 8th in Double Plays with 154; which means anytime opposing teams got players on the base paths, Clint Barnes and Neil Walker quickly erased them. The only area they struggled in defensively was errors committed. Their 106 miscues ranked 9th amongst big league clubs, but the made up for this by ranking first in assists with 1924; almost 100 better than the closest team and nearly 600 better than the worst. Each of these strengths led to many more wins than any stroke of the bat or trip around the bases.
The other area in which the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates excelled in was Pitching. As a staff they ranked 3rd in the league with a 3.26 team ERA (not one regular starter had an ERA over 3.59), 9th in Strike Outs with 1261, 7th in WHIP to the tune of 1.233 average and stranded 1158 runners, good enough for 5th in the league. As far as the relief pitchers were concerned, the nailed down almost every single close game the Pirates were in that year. Jason Grilli, Mark “The Shark” Melancon and company combined for 52 saves and in the process accounting for over half of the team’s victories that year. As a staff, they all pitched clean and consistent innings on a regular basis and when any did get on they were more than likely stranded.
Now I know that none of these numbers are as sexy as the National League leading 36 Home Runs that Pedro had that year; because we all know that “chicks dig the long ball”. And they aren’t as exciting as the 3 Home Runs hit that night; including the 2 by Martin. However, they tell a truer story of how the Pittsburgh Pirates got to that point and were put in a position to compete for a World Series Title for the first time in forever. They are the reason we as Pittsburgh Pirates Fans got to stand up and cheer for our team on the One Magical Night in 2013.